It was the Enforcer vs. Mr. Interfaith as Catholic cardinals chose the heir to a wildly colorful legacy

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Polish-born Karol Wojtyla, a sometime stonecutter and experimental theater actor, spent his 26-year reign as pope John Paul II traveling over 700,000 miles around the globe, ending the “holy isolation” of the Roman Catholic Church, penning five books, and surviving an assassination attempt in 1981. The pontiff later had the near-fatal bullet set into the crown of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, whom he credited with saving his life. Later on, the custom-built popemobile kept him safe.

I encountered John Paul momentarily as a girl in 1985, when he raised his hand in a blessing and sprinkled me with holy water during Mass in St. Peter’s cathedral. Here, however, the papal power may have failed, as I turned out queer anyway. And homosexuality was one of those phenomena that the old pontiff never did accept. An unyieldingly conservative moralist on many social issues, John Paul II not only condemned the evils of queerness, but also banned all discussion of ordaining women, shot down “liberation theology” (a Latin American movement that supported the struggles of the poor for social equality) and reiterated the church’s ban on safe-sex techniques and birth control while the AIDS crisis continued to rage. He insisted that the church not modify its morals to suit current fashions.

In other areas, however, he showed himself very willing to change the rules of tradition. John Paul II made saints—482 of them—at a furious pace, many from the Southern Hemisphere. To make all these saints, he bent the church’s long-established procedure, reducing the number of miracles ascribed to the would-be saint from two to one. When the devil’s advocate (the man charged with arguing against the creation of a saint) revealed Mother Teresa’s connections to savings-and-loan scandalmonger Charles Keating and former Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier during her sanctification, the pontiff eliminated the post of devil’s advocate completely.

John Paul II also managed to fill the church with almost as many living cardinals as deceased saints. By the time of his death, he’d appointed 237 cardinals—nearly all of the 117 who were eligible to vote for his successor, ensuring that his hand will be felt on church policy for a long time to come.

After John Paul II had passed, the cardinal electors were summoned to Rome to elect one of their number as the new pope. In former elections, the cardinals were housed in cramped temporary quarters within the Sistine Chapel itself, complete with cots and chamber pots. This discomfort may have been an incentive to vote more quickly. In 1271, after squabbling cardinals already had debated for three years whom to elect as pope, local lords had them locked in the palace and put on a diet of bread and water, while angry townspeople tore the roof off the cathedral in an attempt to speed up their deliberations. The term for the cardinals’ meeting, the “conclave,” comes from the Latin term cum clave, which means “with key,” as in “locked in.”

This time, thanks to the former pontiff, the cardinals were housed in more luxurious quarters nearby, complete with minibars and other amenities.

Once the cardinals and staff enter the secret conclave, they take an oath of secrecy on threat of excommunication. The Sistine Chapel is checked for communications devices by a team of security experts, and the cardinals take their places around the walls, voting by secret ballots printed with the Latin term “eligo in summum pontificem …” (“I elect as supreme pontiff …”) three times daily until the required two-thirds majority is reached.

John Paul II changed these rules, too: Now, after 30 unproductive votes, a simple majority will suffice. Each batch of ballots is collected, strung together on a thread and burned, giving off black smoke from the chapel’s chimney. When a majority is reached, and the decision is made, the ballots are burned with chemicals to produce a white smoke, and bells ring to alert the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. The candidate is asked what name he will take for himself and puts on the papal vestments (pre-made in a variety of sizes). The dean of the cardinals announces to the crowd, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, habemus Papam!” (“I announce to you with great joy, we have a pope!”) And the new pope steps out into the porch for his first address to the Catholics of the 21st century.

This time, the conclave was more orderly, if less grandiose, than with papal elections of the past. Recent popes have ended the tradition of coronation with the papal tiara, as well as the procession around St. Peter’s Square on the papal throne while flinging handfuls of gold and silver coins to the assembled masses. The royal “we” is gone as well, in favor of the more humble sounding servus servorum dei (servant of the servants of God). In any case, cash-strapped and morally suspect Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) pawned the original papal tiara for 100,000 ducats.

Murder and bribery once were frequent features of papal elections. Leo V lasted only a few months in 903 before he was imprisoned by Christophorus, who tried to become pontiff himself; the next pope, Sergius III, simply had both of them executed. The infamous Borgia Pope Alexander VI bought the votes of the other Cardinals outright and sent sacks of gold on mules to their castles before dawn. Historically, 38 “antipopes” (up to four at once), either elected by breakaway groups of cardinals or simply trying to seize papal authority for themselves, challenged the legitimacy of medieval-era popes.

One of the more persistent tales surrounding papal elections is the legend of Pope Joan. This story, originating in the 13th century, tells of a learned woman who came to Rome as a clergyman’s mistress, disguised as a man, and managed to get herself elected pope. According to the tale, Pope Joan caused a scandal when she fell off her horse during a papal procession and gave birth to a son on the spot, astounding onlookers and revealing her indiscretions (a double standard, given the behavior of male popes of that era). This tale gave rise to the persistent rumor that for centuries after Pope Joan, the cardinals confirmed the future pontiff’s manhood by hand. The papal hopeful would be seated in a particular chair with a strategically cut hole in the seat while one cardinal felt him up, announcing his possession of the “pontificals” by saying, “Testiculos duos habet et bene pendentes” (“He has two testicles, and they hang well”).

You can be sure that the new pope won’t be reveling in the gloriously corrupt excesses of papacies past. Being the pope these days is decidedly less entertaining than it once was; no more starting crusades, humbling emperors, burning heretics through the Inquisition, cavorting with mistresses and making the resulting papal “nephews” into teenage cardinals. There is a tradeoff, however: As pope these days, you’re far less likely to get kidnapped, poisoned or stabbed by angry monarchs or jealous rivals, or torn apart by Roman rioters—unless you believe those conspiracy theories about John Paul I, who only lasted three weeks before ostensibly getting bumped off by the mob.

The modern papacy also has far less secular power than it once did. Popes like Julius II (famous for cracking the whip on Michelangelo) got to gallop around like warlords, putting the unlucky to the fire and the sword to expand the might of the church and the size of the Papal States. Nor will the future pontifex maximus be sprinkling the landscape with illegitimate children, like Renaissance Pope Alexander VI, who had at least six of them, including the infamous Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, and two more by a mistress 40 years his junior, who was known behind the pope’s back as the “Bride of Christ.”

Returning to the present, at least one company was cashing in on the world’s speculation over the new pope’s identity. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power was taking bets online for the papal successor, as well as the name the next supreme pontiff would take and the number of days it would take to elect him. The term for those likely papal hopefuls is papabili, or popeable. Speculation was rampant that the next pope would be a cardinal from the developing world, which now holds the largest population of Catholics.

One of the favorites was Cardinal Francis Arinze, nicknamed “Mr. Interfaith,” a Nigerian who would have been the first African pope since Gelasius in 496. His experience in handling Islamic interfaith issues could have gotten him elected. Another of the front-runners was Colombian Cardinal Hoyos, who fed the poor and homeless on the mean streets of Bogotá and once dressed as a milkman to gain access to a drug lord’s villa and ask that he turn himself in.

Another, more ominous, candidate was German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a right-wing theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office formerly known as the Inquisition. He holds a hard line against feminism, attacked liberation theology and has called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil”; around the Vatican, he is known as “the Enforcer.”

When the election was completed on Tuesday, it was Ratzinger who got to choose the new papal name, which traditionally pays homage to a colleague or former pope or promotes a desired character trait. Some of the more exciting choices available for the new pope were: Pius XIV, Innocent IV, Hyginus II, Dionysius II, Urban VIII, Honorius V, Boniface X, Celestine VI, Sylvester IV, Hilarius II and my personal favorite—Sixtus VI.

The best odds on a new name were for John Paul III, but Ratzinger instead opted for Benedict XVI. Still, John Paul II’s legacy will live on. Regardless of all else, he expanded awareness of the papacy, promoted Catholicism worldwide and stood his ground on moral issues both left and right. In 2000, John Paul II took a step unprecedented in church history: He apologized for the church’s persecution of Jews and women, the injustices of the Inquisition, and the church’s attacks on Galileo and other thinkers who questioned the church’s paradigm. Perhaps in 3000 the pope will be apologizing for the church’s persecution of women (an eternal favorite, it seems) and queers, sexual abuse by priests, and the church’s hard line on abortion. In the meantime, a more local and pressing question: How soon will it take them to change the papal bust in the pope room down at Buca di Beppo?